Managing Stress, The CEO Way
Stress is an issue that can have a tremendous effect on all of us from time to time. From work to any everyday problems we run into in our personal life, it’s inescapable—and even those who have achieved great success can feel the weight of stress’ impact on their shoulders.
What can a CEO do to manage or alleviate stress? What kind of problems do they run into? We asked those in-the-know about their experiences and any advice they could divulge.
Niels Eék, Psychologist and Co-founder of personal development app Remente, delves into the gritty details of stress and the effect it can have:
“In addition to stressful situations naturally occurring in most workplaces, today’s ‘always-on’ culture, brought about by increased connectivity, which means that many of us are under high levels of pressure around the clock.
In an ideal world, we would remove stress from our lives completely, but for many CEOs, this is an unattainable goal. The second-best alternative is to learn about our own stress, to better identify triggers, and know when to take action to calm our minds.
On a very basic level, stress occurs when we feel as though we don’t have sufficient resources – in the shape of time, energy, or capacity – to handle a situation. However, what we generally perceive as stress can vary between individuals. Studies have also linked stress to situations in which we experience a lower degree of control, and don’t have enough time for recovery.
Cortisol, often referred to as the “stress hormone”, plays an important role in how our bodies respond to stress. Cortisol prepares our bodies for fight-or-flight mode by supplying large muscles with immediate energy to better react to short-term stress. However, cortisol also increases blood pressure and suppresses the immune system.
Stress can have numerous effects on both our bodies and mind. During stressful periods, you may have noticed you’ve been sleeping badly, or found it difficult to concentrate at work, and you struggle to prioritise tasks. Other examples of stress symptoms are stomach ache, headaches, confusion, dizziness, and forgetfulness.
To begin to understand your own work-related stress, you need to identify what causes it. In what scenarios do you experience stress, and what sets it off? A good way to figure this out is to keep a diary of brief notes over a week or two to learn about your own triggers. You might be surprised to find your stress-triggers aren’t actually those tight deadlines, or the back-to-back meetings, but instead a noisy environment, and unwanted social commitments outside working hours. Once you identify the sources, the stress will become significantly easier to manage and you can take action to reduce your exposure to certain situations.”
Graham Bird, Director of Where We Work Ltd, explains the stresses of management that can be faced in a leadership role and how to handle it:
“In today’s modern working world, CEOs are faced with many new challenges and one of the biggest is managing a workforce you can’t see. Gone are the days when you could walk into your office and immediately be able to assess who is ‘at work’ and who isn’t, simply by looking at desks. Advances in technology mean staff are choosing how, where, and when they work.
Whilst agile and flexible working are undeniably beneficial to an organisation, they can also be stress inducing for the CEO that is at the helm of an invisible team, therefore a new style of management is critical.
The key here is trust. Without trust, the stress of managing a remote workforce can be overwhelming. This trust should—if possible—begin at the stage of recruitment. An independent and trustworthy team member will mean you can be confident in their abilities to manage their own time, enabling you to measure by performance as opposed to presence.
For some leaders, letting go of direct control may be an uncomfortable process in itself, but micromanaging should be avoided at all costs. A manager of mine once said, “Better to make the wrong decision, than to not make one at all.” Sometimes- making room for an error will alleviate the stress and pressures of leadership- but this again, comes back to trust.
Of course, communication is now more important than ever, and should be maintained by utilising the many available tools to check in with staff- not just as a means to assess their progress- but as a means to check on their wellbeing, and how they are. It is also advisable to get to know staff members and organise social events during a working day. A CEO should know their team, and should talk to them about themselves, find out who they are, what they like to do. Be prepared to show some vulnerability by sharing things about yourself and your own life. Frequent social activity will inevitably increase the levels of trust whilst improving staff morale.
Poor management styles are often the cause of stress – but the promotion of trust, will mean a happier, more confident, capable workforce—which will naturally alleviate stress for a CEO.”
Lastly, Simon Ong, Life & Executive Coach and Business Strategist gives his advice on combatting everyday stress in big and small ways:
“Manage your personal energy and that of the work environment better, since these can have a profound impact on your mental wellbeing. The foundation of being energised for a productive day ahead always begins with having sufficient sleep. It’s easier to handle whatever the day may throw your way if you are well rested than if you’re already exhausted and tired before the day has begun.
The day is won before it has started if you commit to planning your day the night before (or even the week ahead on a Sunday). Much of success in any endeavour comes down to our daily habits, choices and rituals; and so, by having a disciplined and well-structured schedule (that factors in “Me time”) we are able to minimise unexpected occurrences that appear to be one of the key drivers of stress. Too many of us lead busy and undisciplined daily lives, such that if we don’t take responsibility in managing our schedules each day, someone else will do it for us. It is why many in leadership positions are stuck in reactive mode for the majority of each week, constantly firefighting the many issues that flood their way. Being in reactive mode takes you away from what’s most important for the business and dilutes your attention.
I came across an article recently that suggested the average attention span for a human has now declined to just eight seconds. What was more amusing however, is that for goldfish, this came in at nine seconds! In an age of increasing distractions, the ability to focus is becoming an increasingly important skill to master. A lot of stress can come simply from not taking action over something that is in our control, but that we push back and delay until later. The longer we wait to do something that we know we must address and that is within our control, the more we fear and procrastinate about doing it. This creates unnecessary stress. Regular priority management helps us to focus on the most important tasks at the beginning of the day when our energy tends to be at its peak.
Simplify your days. So many of us tend to overcomplicate things, which creates stress and overthinking within the mind. By eliminating unproductive activities from our days, we are able to streamline our personal and professional lives. As a result, we are able to commit more headspace to what’s most important.
Slow down in order to speed up. It’s important to take time out of our days to recharge and renew, because more always comes from a mind that is still and calm than one that is always busy, distracted and ‘switched on’. Doing so helps us experience greater clarity, creative insight and perspective. I recall a particular moment in which a CEO, a client of mine was going through a challenging day. I sent him an eight-minute musical piece from the composer Ludovico Einaudi and simply asked him to close his eyes, immerse himself in the music and just notice what he noticed. What he got out of this short activity taught him that he needed to slow down more and how powerful doing so could be.
Calm the mind before going bed and begin the day with a workout. Doing the former helps elevate the quality of your sleep and could include keeping all technological devices out of the bedroom so that you can dive into a good book in the hour or two before you sleep. With regards the latter, not only does it raise our physical condition, but it does wonders for our mindset and internal dialogue. We feel more positive, which is infinitely more productive than a negative one.”